We will step on Mars 20 to 30 years after we step back onto the moon. Reason being ... we will need to use the moon as a jump off point to get to Mars, which will require building a base on the moon.
And why would that be? To go to Mars requires a lot more fuel, and more fuel requires even more fuel to lift such a rocket into space. As such, the low gravity of the moon makes for a much more economical launch.
So ... we would piece out what needed to be built on Earth and send it to the moon. The base on the moon would assemble the rocket on the moon, hopefully using resources from the moon as part of the building process, and then the launch from the moon would require much less resources.
Upon return, the rocket could return to the moon or to Earth. If it returned to the moon it would require less shielding for reentry.
There ya go. This is more what I was looking for when I asked the question. Money aside here's what I know.
Perdue and Penn State are currently experimenting with rocket engines that run on nano-particle aluminum and water ice. It works too.
The moon has lots of aluminum and water. That's what LCROSS confirmed and was announced yesterday. The problem now is to figure out how to extract it before sending anything up there to do the job.
I also know, from materials scientists, that the dust on the moon (called regolith) is an ideal cement; all it needs is water. Someone associated with USC has already designed a robot for that purpose. It can distribute cement, under robotic control, and build a structure by laying down succeeding layers of cement. Of course the cement hardens into concrete and viola you have a structure.
Space science is also certain there's water on Mars.Mars also has an abundance of aluminum.
There are more than 50% of unused, barren, virgin lands on earth.... In Russia's Siberia, Canada, W.Australia, Tibet, Gobi, most parts of South America and Central Africa. We must try to change those lands into habitable areas instead of spending billions and billions on space. We cant conclude that we have conquered moon and mars where only a group of ten or more can go and return. Half of humanity is not having enough living standards. Why not we think about them?
Though I acknowledge that living standards differ a lot, but better man stepped on any other planet than convert those areas to (as you said) into habitable areas. Because converting would be a disaster. Why? Because we would not have enough oxygen to breathe. And that, to my mind, is a bit more important than living standards.
In the end, the means out weigh the ends. The technology developed to get there has the greatest impact on society. War and scientific exploration are often seen as completely wastefull. However some great advances are made from both endeavors.